The Empire Strikes Back has a reputation for being the darkest of the Star Wars films. In contrast to the triumphant mood at the end of A New Hope, Empire closes with our heroes having been thoroughly defeated and left scrambling. Han is frozen in carbonite, placed in the hands of a bounty hunter, and ferried to the crime boss he’s been trying to avoid for two films. Luke fails in his quest to neutralize Darth Vader and has his hand sliced off for the trouble. What’s more, he learns not only that the man he loathes most in this world is his father, but that the people he trusted–the ones who guided him on this journey–have misled him. And Leia, Lando, Chewbacca, C3PO, and R2-D2 are all lucky to escape with their lives after being imprisoned, strangled, torn apart, and dragged through the muck.
The title “The Empire Strikes Back” could easily have been a simple marketing ploy, something that looked good on movie posters and sounded cool enough to rev up Star Wars’s legions of fans. Instead, it became an animating principle for the film. Empire contrasts the unexpected blow struck by the Rebels in the first film, with the measured counterpunch delivered by The Empire in the second. The ending of Empire sent the message that this would not be the type of series of films where the good guys win every time just because they’re the good guys.
But there’s much more to the movie than that darkness. It’s easy to judge Empire based on where the characters are at the end of the movie, but the route the film takes to bring them to that point is not so much dark as it is meditative, not so much bleak as it is serious, and, if I’m being honest, a bit more uneven in the effort than its predecessor.
Empire is, in many ways, a flabbier film than A New Hope. There’s a certain focus and clear progression in the original Star Wars film that Empire eschews. Sure, Episode IV takes a few detours to establish its world and its characters, but the story advances from Point A to Point B with a fairly straightforward build. Empire isn’t nearly so direct.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Part of what makes Empire stand out in the Star Wars pantheon is that it’s ultimately a character piece. It’s a film that’s less devoted to whether the Millennium Falcon and its band of misfit toys will escape from their imperial pursuers than it is to developing the rocky-if-passionate relationship between Han and Leia. It’s less about Luke flying off to save his friends from The Empire than about the battle for his soul. And it’s less concerned with whether Luke will defeat Vader than whether he’ll be tempted by The Dark Side.
That choice both helps and hurts the film. It makes Empire more interesting because, with the first Star Wars movie having already established these characters, the second gives creator George Lucas, director Irvin Kershner, and writers Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett a chance to explore them. Luke’s arc over the course of this film in particular gives greater meaning to his struggles both before and after it. And while there were hints at an attraction between Han and Leia in A New Hope, Empire makes that romantic tension explicit and develops how and why these two conflicting personalities would love one another.
But it also takes away much of the film’s forward momentum. The characters cannot pinball off of one another when there’s plot hurdles to be leapt over, so Empire leaves them stymied for most of its run time. Our heroes find themselves stranded, imprisoned, sequestered, or simply waiting around for much of the film.
Han, Leia, Chewey, and C3PO hang around in a “cave” while they try to repair the ship. The four of them sit tight on the underside of a star destroyer waiting to float away at an opportune moment. They’re held as bait while Vader waits for Luke to sense their presence and attempt to rescue them. And Luke himself spends much of the film off to the side, as the monk returning to the monastery to learn at the feet of his master. This all makes the film seem slower in its pacing compared to its predecessor. Empire is less tightly constructed, more meandering as it focuses on character rather than plot. Again, that’s not a knock, but it’s a palpable difference.
It’s also a film that’s full of twists, some great, some small. Yet what’s impressive about the construction of Empire is how well it functions despite knowing the reveals.
When Leia has a bad feeling about Cloud City, or when she hears Luke’s psychic pleas at the end of the film, the foreshadowing does not pay off until the next installment. But even if Lucas and company had decided to go in a different direction with her character in Return of the Jedi, those scenes still stand just as easily for the good intuition and pragmatism Leia had shown previously, and for the connection she and Luke have shared in the midst of their adventures.
By the same token, Lando Calrissian is, in some ways, a more interesting character with the knowledge that he’s working with Vader from the first moment we see him on the screen. To some degree, Lando takes up Han’s mantle from the prior movie — the man from outside the conflict who gets involved because of his own interests, but who then changes his tune when he becomes closer to the struggle. The internal conflict he wrestles with–his desire to keep his people safe, but also to protect his friends–adds an interesting layer to every exchange he has in the film, and makes his eventual turn to help Leia and the rest of our heroes more meaningful.
Empire, of course, also contains the best-known twist in movie history. The fact that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father was spoiled for me long before I ever watched this film as a child by, of all things, an episode of The Simpsons. And yet, even without the element of surprise, the magnitude of the reveal, and the moment when it’s delivered, still absolutely work, in no small part due to the performances of James Earl Jones and Mark Hamill
Jones’s sonorous voice gives him instant authority when he speaks as the hulking Vader. But there’s also an underplayed vulnerability to the character in his scenes opposite Luke. The knowledge that the young man who destroyed the Death Star is, in fact, his son, is a surprise for Vader as well. And there is a peculiar but clear fatherly air about him when he faces Luke, a sense that this young man is no longer his enemy, but something to be reclaimed, even in the throes of combat.
By the same token, The Big No! is rightfully maligned as a cheesy trope that reappears all too often in cinema. But when Luke tries in vain to negate the truth of his parentage, Hamill’s cries do not seem like the cheesy lament intended to set up an act break. Instead, they feel as though they come from a place of pure anguish, of distress, of the cycling realizations that what Vader is saying is true and that the people he trusted have lied to him.
It’s the perfect capper to the intensity of the fight between Luke and Vader. While the lightsaber battles in the original trilogy lack the acrobatic bent of those in the prequels, there’s a greater sense of rawness to them in Empire, of character reflected in how a father and son approach each other in combat. Luke’s technique is wild and unfocused. He slashes and slings, and Yoda’s warnings that he’s not ready, that his mind is too distracted, cast a shadow as he strains to fight a superior enemy. In contrast, Vader is the image of steadiness. He fends off Luke with a much greater economy of movement, calmer and more centered than his opponent. The subtext is significant.
And yet there’s one more small twist in the film that’s often forgotten, but which adds more weight to that later confrontation. The small, grizzled, green creature in the swamps of Dagobah is not the pestersome imp he initially appears to be. He is Yoda, the wise old Jedi Master, a living testament to the idea that The Force is far more unique and unpredictable than Luke can possibly understand.
Frank Oz delivers one of the film’s best performances as Yoda, burdened with making the philosophical aphorisms in his character’s dialogue sound as moving and grandiose as his scenes require. The moment when Yoda shifts from his mischievous Fozzy-esque tones to the solemnity in his voice when he tells Obi Wan “I cannot train him” is still a striking shift that Oz nails.
And when Yoda raises Luke’s X-Wing from the belly of the swamp, it’s one of the film’s most powerful scenes, not just because it emphasizes the power of The Force and the theme of Yoda’s character–that looks can be deceiving–but also because of what follows. When a wide-eyed Luke says “I can’t believe it,” and Yoda responds “That is why you fail,” it underscores the concerns about the young Skywalker’s abilities, his future, and his potential, both good and bad, that affect Yoda and shade the battle between Luke and his father in the climax of the film.
If there’s one thing to say in favor of the prequels, it’s that they do add something to the moments when Yoda pushes back against Obi Wan’s insistence that he train Luke, when he says that there’s too much anger in him, that he’s too old and too rash. While Empire tells the audience that Anakin once shared these qualities and that Yoda’s already been burned once, actually seeing it over the course of The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith changes the complexion of Yoda’s fears. While the execution of Anakin’s turn to The Dark Side in those films fell flat, knowing in more detail what Yoda witnessed and what was lost by the decision to allow Anakin to be trained as a Jedi makes the choices faced here more significant.
And it sets up the strongest element of the The Empire Strikes Back — the battle for Luke Skywalker’s soul. It’s easy to look back now, knowing how Luke becomes a hero, and miss the way in which the otherwise good-natured farm boy can be impulsive or frustrated or quick-to-action in a way that, like his father, could have easily led him to The Dark Side. Yoda isn’t just training Luke; he’s testing him, and trying to decide whether he’s trustworthy enough to learn what the old Jedi Master can teach him. Vader is testing him too. Despite a few moments where Luke gets the better of Vader in their fight, the Sith Lord is firmly in control, seeing what his son is capable of and deciding whether Luke can be convinced to join him or must be destroyed.
The intensity and weight of those scenes are what elevate Empire, and give it more heft than its predecessor even when it lacks something in focus by comparison. At base, Luke is the lens through which we experience the Star Wars saga, and deepening the choice he’s making in becoming a Jedi, heightening the risk of him potentially following in his father’s footsteps, and emphasizing the opposing forces at the core of the way of life that Luke is committing himself to, makes his part of that story that much more meaningful and compelling.
If A New Hope is the traditional hero’s journey, then Empire is something a little lumpier, but also more ambitious and complex — an exploration of what becoming the hero entails, about original sin, and the thin line between doing something heroic and becoming the villain. More than the twists, or the darkness, or the love story, that exploration is what makes The Empire Strikes Back one of the most distinctive, interesting, and complicated entries in the Star Wars canon.
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